Armenian refuge home to ultra-rare Caucasian leopard: The Smithsonian

Armenian refuge home to ultra-rare Caucasian leopard: The Smithsonian

PanARMENIAN.Net - The Smithsonian Magazine has prepared an article about the Caucasian leopard which dates back millennia in Armenia’s history and iconography.

The animal hadn’t been seen in the area in years until its tail was caught by a remote camera in the country's Caucasus Wildlife Refuge four years ago.

Shortly after the initial tail sighting, another camera trap captured a complete view of the elusive predator. “It turned out that he was a three-legged leopard,” says Ruben Khachatryan, Director of the Armenian NGO Foundation for Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC), but he seemed to be doing fine, despite his handicap. About six months later, Khachatryan learned from a World Wildlife Fund staff member that the same leopard had been spotted in the wilds of Azerbaijan. “Then, two years ago,” says Khachatryan, “I was in a seminar in Iran and someone showed me a photo of our leopard. He had made his way to Iran, completing his circle of migration.”

Khachatryan and his colleagues were thrilled: Creating a migration corridor for Caucasus wildlife is one of the main efforts of the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge, a 10,000-hectare (and growing) territory in southwestern Armenia’s Ararat province, less than an hour’s drive from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The refuge, a project of the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC), also happens to be the only privately-managed protected area in the South Caucasus.

Khachatryan and his colleagues began the refuge back in 2007 with only 400 hectares leased from local communities. But the area—and its impact on local wildlife—have grown exponentially over the last decade. Its rugged mountains, deep canyons, arid grasslands and maple- and juniper-filled forests are hot spots of biodiversity in the region, attracting rare species like Armenian mouflon (or big-horn sheep), Syrian brown bears, wolves, lynx and bezoar goats, as well as some of the last remaining Caucasian leopards.

These days, several trap cameras and rangers keep an eye out for illegal poachers (hunting in the refuge is banned) while monitoring wildlife, something that continues to flourish as the refuge acquires more land. To do so, the FPWC has begun working with local communities—many of which are now also part of the refuge—to win trust, helping villagers to establish solar energy and water filtration systems. FPWC hopes this partnership with local communities is a win-win. CWR gains access to local land to help reconnect the area’s wildlife corridors, and local communities receive much-needed infrastructure improvements, and hopefully a tourism boost. “In this way we win their trust for collaboration,” says Khachatryan.“Before, communities would only allow us to lease the land,” says Khachatryan. “Now that they’ve seen [the positive impacts we’re making], they are willing to donate.”

Outside of a few special areas of biodiversity that are off-limits to visitors, the refuge offers plenty of unique opportunities for travelers—from guided hikes along cliff-lines and past nests of bearded vultures, to horseback riding on well-heeled animal trails in the CWR’s Ourts mountains. Most of the B&Bs are located within Urtsadzor—a CWR village known for white storks and a plethora of butterfly species.

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